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I Ran a Marathon!

Posted by Peder on 5 October 2010

Well there it is, I’m a marathoner!

This past Sunday, October 3rd I ran in the 29th Twin Cities Marathon which connects downtown Minneapolis to the Capitol Building in St. Paul. Along the way we ran through some of the most beautiful and iconic neighborhoods of the two cities.

Marathon #1

Starting at 8:00 in the morning we left from a fenced-in corral on the south side of the Metrodome and traveled down 6th St through an abandoned Minneapolis. Of course, the city wasn’t abandoned, but with whatever passes for urban life early on a Sunday morning held back by barriers and drowned out by cheering fans, it certainly felt like the whole city and each majestic reflection of that frosty sunrise from the solemn skyscrapers existed only for us runners. Supporters lined both sides of the street and all of the intersections throughout downtown and the rest of the course beyond. One ingenious group stood up on the third level of a parking garage on 5th Ave giving them an elevated view of the masses starting the race. I wonder what kind of pictures they got?

We continued south on Hennepin Ave toward Loring Park. The bells from the Basilica of St. Mary were in full concert encouraging us along. I passed a man with a tag on his back that indicated he was over 80 years old and I thought to myself, “I know I’m gonna be hurting at the end of this. I wonder how he’s gonna feel?!” But there he was, trudging along like the rest of us. I actually ducked out of the race for a brief moment at that point to use a Port-a-Potty on the course. Apparently I drank too much water before the start. But you know, as far as first-time marathon mistakes are concerned, I figure over-hydrating has to be about the most benign form I could muster. Anyway, as I rejoined the throngs back on the course I passed the same octogenarian again. I offered him my encouragement and he gruffed in my direction. I’m such a whipper snapper.

Night Before: I'm Ready!

The course continued through the Kenwood neighborhood and toward the Chain of Lakes. Around mile 2.5 the Honorable Alan Page, chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court and Hall of Fame Vikings lineman, stood on one of the street corners playing his tuba as he has done every year since somewhere in the mid-late 1990s. How fun is that?

via Star Tribune

During that first half of the race I was so happy. Pure joy. I had a smile the whole time. I pumped my fist at the encouraging crowds. I high-fived little kids. I made jokes with other runners. And I enjoyed the reality that after four months, 65 training runs and 469 training miles here I was finally running a marathon. I mean, who would’ve thought I’d ever run a marathon?

But the whole race wasn’t so carefree. Around two-thirds in — at around the 17-18 mile mark — my quadriceps started barking at me. My legs started getting tired. My smile started to waver. I turned up my music hoping to distract my brain from itself and its thoughts of slowing down, walking or even stopping altogether. I had put together a playlist for that race including some Tom Petty and the Rolling Stones and somewhere between the songs “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Gimme Shelter” I found my groove and got that pep back in my step.

With renewed vigor I caught up with a young woman I had been pacing with earlier. We had briefly chatted around mile 11. She was impressed by how well I was holding up during my first marathon and I was impressed she had qualified for the Boston Marathon (a mark of excellence for any runner) after the 2009 Twin Cities Marathon, her first. In fact I met all kinds of characters throughout the morning. There were a couple of guys dressed up as Twins’ stars Joe Mauer and Carl Pavano (complete with sideburns and mustache, respectively) keeping a running total of who got the most compliments from the crowd. (Mauer was miles ahead.)  A woman with taped up hamstrings told a story of how she had to drop her pants in the middle of the crowded marathon expo the night before to receive that treatment. And, while making the gorgeous crossing over the Franklin Ave bridge I met a man who was on his 100th marathon. Can you imagine?

Halfway There!

After crossing into St. Paul we found ourselves on the home stretch — the infamous run up Summit Ave to Cathedral Hill. Now I’ve run that stretch many times before, but race veterans couldn’t help to point out how different it would feel after 21 miles of marathoning. I now know how right they were. As the elevation data from my running watch shows (scroll down a bit), that hill stands as a near-criminal offense at that point in the race. Whatever sadist decided to include that stretch … But what are you going to do? Stop? No way. There’s only one thing to do and that is to continue. To persevere. For a couple miles already by that point by legs were tired/sore enough that I didn’t feel I could get the full stride length I was used to earlier in the race. So I focused my mind on my leg turn over, the constant chug-a-lug, chug-a-lug of putting one foot in front of the other. I was the little engine that could. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can …

And it worked. I was passing people on the uphill. I’ve always prided myself for running strong uphill. I don’t have any data to prove that I’m any better than anyone else, but in my mind, hills are the places where I differentiate myself from other runners. And it worked! I was passing people along those final miles. I didn’t stop. I never walked. (Well, I slowed to a walk to drink at the water stations, but even after mile 22 I didn’t stop at them anymore.) I had only one goal in mind: The Finish.

Race Shirt and Finisher's Medal

My legs ached. I mean ached! I had never felt them that tired and not stopped to rest before. I knew eventually (days later) they wouldn’t hurt anymore, but that if I stopped at that point I would be kicking myself forever for whimping out at the end. I wanted to run the whole damn race. And as I crested Cathedral Hill and saw the Capitol Building a half mile away I could only think one thing. “Don’t fall on the downhill!” Seriously, that was about my only real concern for the whole race. I knew I would finish, but I didn’t know how my aching, tired legs would deal with the downgrade along John Ireland Blvd. Wobbly legs + downhill can be a recipe for disaster, but fortunately mine stayed beneath me and I “sprinted” to the finish. Success!!

My Shoe with Timing Chip

I finished my first marathon in 3:31:30 which I’m very proud of. (Official Results) I finished in the top 15% of all runners and in the 25th percentile of all men in their 30s. And I even stopped to go to the bathroom and pause for a picture near the halfway point. With continued training the future looks bright!

Even though my legs hurt so bad today that it’s hard to walk up and down stairs, I’m already looking toward future races. Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth is definitely in my future, as are likely the marathons in Fargo, Chicago and New York (pending qualification). Who knows, if I keep at it maybe I can shave the 20 minutes I need to qualify for Boston? After finishing Marathon #1, who am I to say where the limit now lies?

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Posted in Around Minnesota | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »

So You Want to Play Online in China?

Posted by Peder on 21 September 2010

Well then you’ll need some different toys.  Trust issues, money, and cultural differences have laid the foundation for an alternative social network for netizens of the the Middle Kingdom.  If you head over there, be prepared to leave your Facebook and Twitter access at home.  And if you really want to live like the locals, add Baidu and Sina (English) to your bookmark lists.

I’ve tried out a few of these sites and the biggest obstacle is obviously the language.  But as Google Translate continues to improve, it becomes easier and easier to understand foreign content.  Check out this translated version of Baidu.  And most international sites have an English page anyway.

Probably the most fun I’ve had has been on video sites like Tudou or Youku.  These sites are less stringent than Youtube about what kind of IP (read: TV shows) they host.

Source: Huffington Post (via)

Posted in China, Communication, Internationalism | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Misinterpreting “Isolationist” Sentiment

Posted by Peder on 26 January 2010

A poll of Americans claims most of us want less and less to do with international issues and the affairs of other nations.  That is according to a recent article published in my local paper and written by the McClatchy news service.  It cites a Pew Center report in which about half the respondents agreed with the phrases that America should “mind its own business internationally,” and that as Americans “we should go our own way.”  In 1964, less than 20% of respondents shared this sentiment.  The analysis then went on to describe a new surge in American isolationism, akin to that experienced in the 1920s, spurred by sentiments of the under-30 crowd.  It’s the younger generation, you see, who wants to take its ball and go home.

Eh, hang on a minute there.

I went back and read the actual poll report.  Its focus was on Americans’ perception of their country’s place in the world, and was conducted in preparation for President Obama’s decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan.  In essence, many Americans feel the USA plays a less important role internationally than it did 10 years ago.  In contrast, China’s importance is growing.  Unfortunately, the article’s author, Rick Montgomery, “buried the lead” by emphasizing American isolationism.  At best, isolationist sentiment is of tertiary importance, superseded by US global influence and the need for increased troops in Afghanistan.

To quote the survey:

The general public and members of the Council on Foreign Relations are apprehensive and uncertain about America’s place in the world. Growing numbers in both groups see the United States playing a less important role globally, while acknowledging the increasing stature of China. And the general public, which is in a decidedly inward-looking frame of mind when it comes to global affairs, is less supportive of increasing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan than are CFR members.

But Mr. Montgomery begins his article with this:

Is it the economy? The blood spilled in Afghanistan and Iraq? A fear of China, or imported diseases?

It must be a mix of all that bothers us, experts suggest, because never in the history of polling have so many Americans said the nation should take care of its own and stay out of other countries’ affairs.

Just when you thought technology and trade had made the globe as small as it could get, talk of a “new isolationism” is spreading.

Now, I’ll acknowledge his analysis is not completely without merit.  The 44% of Americans who responded that the country should “go our own way” and not worry about whether other countries agree can be interpreted as an increasing desire to address issues in a unilateral fashion.  But the report specifically lists that result next to the result of whether the US should “mind its own business” and let others get along on their own.  It seems more Americans are showing an appreciation for a Live and Let Live approach to internationalism:

Live and Let Live

Isolationist?  I’m not convinced.

Consider the responses from the under-30 crowd.  As Mr. Montgomery writes:

Young adults recall no other world than the one in which the U.S. was the sole superpower. But there is a wrinkle in their worldview: While 59 percent of those younger than 30 told Pew that the country should “mind its own business,” only 39 percent said “we should go our own way.”

That's a Bingo!

Young Americans are not isolationists.  They want to be a part of the world.  In fact, the number of passports issued in recent years still surpasses pre-9/11 numbers; it seems more and more Americans are interested in traveling abroad.  But around 60% of those polled want our government to let others do their own thing.  Being international does not mean being intrusive.  A cosmopolitan is not coercive.

Instead of being concerned that America is involved in international affairs, these numbers represent a growing concern over how the United States is involved in international affairs.  It’s not that Americans don’t want to be involved in the world, it’s that fewer and fewer want to be so heavy-handed about it. We’re not eschewing in a new era of isolationism, we’re just tired of being a bully (or being seen as a bully).  Our increasing military involvement overseas – or threat thereof – at the sake of international diplomacy and multinational solutions to international problems makes us the global equivalent to the bully at recess.

The article acknowledges this idea, but gives it only a scant few of its 4,823 words:

“I think people in general think we should be involved in the world, but not in a domineering way,” said [Steven] Kull, author of [the 1999 book] “Misreading the Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism.”

Tsk, tsk.  If I may speak as a member (for about another week) of the under-30 crowd, I think the younger generations cited in this poll are tired of seeing the world through the military lens and would rather engage in the world in a more even, respectful manner.  Even when the task is to share our more honorable values, such as representative democracy and equal rights, using the military muddles the message.

Posted in Internationalism | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Troubles @ Kai En

Posted by Peder on 28 December 2009

During my years in Shanghai I worked at a prominent English school called the Kai En English Training Center (凯恩英语培训中心).  At the time it was a model school in the city and across China.  It exemplified a successful joint venture between domestic and foreign owners, it utilized a highly-effective teaching model which was new in the Chinese market and it had begun to franchise across the city.  When I worked there, two schools operated at full capacity.  As recently as a couple years ago the same could be said of five locations.

But the good times have not lasted.  Pressures from the other language companies (notably English First, I’ve read) and the global recession have cut into Kai En’s profit margins.  The strong management upon which the school and brand grew splintered as the Shanghai-famous Ken Carroll became involved in ChinesePod and Praxis Language.

Unfortunately the bottom fell off Kai En earlier this month, making for a rough holiday season for a beleaguered faculty, administration and support staff.  The company had been under financial duress for some time (perhaps more than a year), but had been able to stay afloat.  Searches for additional investors panned and the ownership closed the doors and fled the country in a matter of days.  All employees were owed some amount of back wages, and the local employees had gone the longest without pay.

Photo: Kai En

Here are the sources I used:

  1. The initial collapse, as captured by Shanghaiist. (Their source at Shanghai Daily is closed to subscribers, but I read it last week and it’s pretty much just the B&W facts on the matter: Owners bailed and took everyone’s money.)
  2. A teacher’s open letter on the situation, also from Shanghaiist
  3. A longer update posted on Shanghaiist. This one is good because it includes commentary from a long-standing teacher, Kris Fedorak. His perspective is particularly illuminating. (Unrelated observation: We must have missed each other in the faculty lounge by mere months.)

This is truly a sad post for me.  My relationships with Kai En, Ken, Brian and Steve were never perfect, but over subsequent years I learned that they had treated me and my colleagues in a respectful, straight-forward manner.  Ken and I had fun conversations about language acquisition theory.  Brian and I debated the merits of pop music as lesson material and whether or not U2 was the greatest band ever.  Steve was part of an historic Chinese New Year’s party that happened to coincide with my 23rd birthday.  In those years the school was a dependable, trustworthy employer with a strong product, loyal students and a prominent position in the Shanghai scene.  It’s sad to see how far this has all fallen.

Here are some pictures I have with other Kai En faculty.

Zach and Angelina were my roommates as well

Cassandra was a Senior Teacher

Phil was a branch manager, here shown with his fiance, Amy

Posted in China | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Gunshots in Punta Gorda

Posted by Peder on 22 July 2009

I wasn’t sleeping well anyway so the racket didn’t wake me up. In fact, among the various crashes, loud noises and blaring car stereos along Main St. this particular rumble wasn’t really that loud. But it was distinctive. Something had crashed into the metal garage-style security door that the shop owner rolls down each night to close off the main entrance to his store. Some glass shattered. I rolled over and peeked my head up to look out the second story window behind my bed that looked out onto the street. I picked my glasses off the night stand. Footsteps hurried as a gunshot rang out. Two figures came flying by my frame of reference as another shot rang out. They were running left to right. Near the right (south) side of my building one of them ducked between it and the building next door presumably disappearing into the yard behind our house and the store beneath us. The other runner kept running down the street. A police officer appeared next to the left as he followed the two young men who had just past. He carried a small pistol in his right hand. As he approached the point were the two had split up, he gave a wary glance into the small alleyway but ultimately continued down the street.

Moments passed. They may have been minutes. By this point the other guy sleeping the room, Harry, was awake and watching the scene unfold with me. He had been woken by the gunshots. A police car came in from the right side, lights spinning but without a siren. Didn’t seem like he had seen that second runner. A police officer appeared from the left. He looked an awful lot like the first cop that gave chase, but by reappearing so quickly where he did, he must have circled the block awfully quickly. Maybe he found a little alleyway too. In any case, he hadn’t seen either of the two men he was chasing. (The houses and shops in this area of town are packed relatively close together, but the fences don’t always match or completely encircle each property. Meanwhile there are a bunch of trees and houses, and half-built and half-fallen down buildings. There are a lot of places to hide.) By this point the two new officers had gotten out of their car and joined the first officer on the street directly under my window. One carried a shotgun and the other had a pistol. They split up to search.

As it turns out, I would be the first person to find one of the burglars. I stepped out of my room to check the locks on the front and back doors. There’s a large balcony/veranda surrounding the house which is accessed by these two doors and the stairs to one section extend down to near where the first man ran. As I approached the front door I saw him. I stopped dead in my tracks. He was lying on the cement floor staring out toward the street through the pillars of the railing. Hardly more than the top of his head would be visible from the street, but I saw all of him. He was watching the officer patrolling the lot across the way. I quickly went back into my room and told Harry what I saw. We decided to flick the bedroom lights on and off to get the cop’s attention. Meanwhile I snuck back toward the front door and yelled in my loudest, deepest voice, “GET OUTTA HERE! JUST GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!!”

Actually I couldn’t see the guy any more which spooked me further. I went back to the home owner’s bedroom to wake him. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t up already with all the noise, but it turned out I needed to give him a pretty good shake to get him up. He was sleeping a lot better than I had been.

“Jerry,” I said, “we have a situation. There were gunshots, I think there was a robbery next door and one of the guys in on the front veranda.”

He got right up and walked toward the front door. He picked up the machete he kept by the front door.

“That’s what this is for,” he remarked.

He picked it up and walked right up to the window that looked onto the veranda. The window where I had first seen the man. Turns out he had moved to right underneath the window such that you had be standing right next to it to see him.

“Get the f*** off my porch,” demanded Jerry.

“There are guys shooting at me,” said the intruder, who turned out to be a young man around 18-20 years old.

“I don’t care,” responded Jerry, “go tell that cop down there.”

So the boy stood up, raised his hands and told the officer he was coming down. I followed out onto the balcony and saw him kneeling while the cop put handcuffs on him.

The other officers returned and they interrogated the boy. They brought him back to the police station which was only a block away. Then they returned and continued the search for the other suspect in our backyard, presumably based on info from the first guy. Yikes. The three of us watched from various points on the veranda for another 20 minutes or so, but that was the last of the action. Couple of flashlight beams here and there, a random dog barking, and eventually the police car carrying a couple officers back to the neighborhoods behind us said the search was still on, but I’m not sure how it ended. I hope they caught the other runner.

This would be spooky enough in isolation, but unfortunately there’s been an increasing number of recent burglaries. A few weeks back a tour operator managed by a friend was broken into. They lost a laptop and cash. On Monday some other friends’ house was robbed as the two were out to dinner around 8pm. That was spooky because the assailants came in through the front door which is very exposed to the street. At 8pm. Word on the street was there were a lot of robberies that night. A helicopter with a large search light was even brought in to comb the area. And just today that very same Harry I mentioned was assaulted by a masked teenager who threatened like he had a gun in his belt while Harry was teaching a classroom full of summer camp kids learning about the environment. That happened about 15 miles out of town in one of the many Mayan villages nearby. It’s safe to say crime is on the rise in Punta Gorda.

Unfortunately the cops can’t seem to do anything about it. Of course, watching the way they handled any of these situations would lead you to believe they really don’t know what they’re doing — or don’t care. The refrigerator in that tour operator was left open by the burglars, but the cops didn’t even go near it as they dusted the office for finger prints. The case on my friend’s house is hung up because the officers don’t know how to fill out some of the reports that need to be filed. The case is being transferred to a precinct in the capital city for that very reason and none of us are holding our breath for it to be resolved. And even though the cops have three eyewitnesses to the incident that required two rounds to be fired from a gun, none of us have been asked to give a report.

Welcome to Punta Gorda, the wild wild South of Belize. Come armed.

Posted in Belize | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Sapodilla Cayes, the String of Pearls and Swimming with Whale Sharks

Posted by Peder on 19 June 2009

Last week I went on a dive trip to the Sapodilla Cayes (Hunting Caye) with some friends. A late night, nearly last minute decision that lead to one of the coolest experiences of my life. (Similar to my decision to move to Shanghai.)

Dive Prep

Dive Prep

Our first dive was to be an easier affair and a chance for us to re-acclimate ourselves with diving. There were a few divers who hadn’t been in the water in a while. Not me though, I recently got certified. I saw a very large green moray eel and a spiny lobster on the dive. There was also a section of rock with large coral colonies that had fallen off during the recent earthquake (7.3 mW off Bay Islands, Honduras, June 2009). I swam in a couple crevices and regained some proficiency with my buoyancy.

When we came in from the dive we cleaned up and immediately started on some dinner that our host was making. It wasn’t just for us. An upscale time-share group called Tradewinds had moored two large catamarans off the caye and brought about 20 guests onto the island. Our host had a weekly contract with them to provide a few dinners and a presentation on wildlife around the reef, and provided us our opportunity to dive. Because our departure from shore had been delayed a bit and because of the length of our afternoon dive, we had precious little time to get the four courses ready for the guests. Everyone helped prepare the dinner. Meanwhile, we prepared for our night dive.

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Sunset on the Caye

Sundown was a beautiful vision on the caye. Looking west where paradise eventually reconnected with land, the sun touched down on the Caribbean lagoon with a bath of reds and oranges, magentas and yellows. Once the sun was below the horizon we were ready to look for the “String of Pearls” phenomenon. This is one of the more rare sites for any diver to encounter. In select few places around the globe around the time of the full moon, if one were to venture onto the water in the period after sunset and before the moonrise, they would see one of the most peculiar displays of bioluminescence on this Earth. Once we were underwater and accounted for, we gathered together and shut off our lights. Slowly and all around us, new young star constellations began appearing in the water. Some were close, and some were far away. After just a few minutes the water was transformed into a young Milky Way galaxy as thousands of small lights surrounded us. But these three-dimensional constellations were actually small critters. (Here’s one explanation I found for it.) The effect was amazing. The lights seemed to cascade down – newer dots lit below older ones – as the whole array appeared to move upward. It was difficult to tell if the upward movement was real or just a visual effect caused by the wriggling shimmer of the light bearers, but seeing this behavior – this String of Pearls – was awe inspiring, utterly poetic in an underwater universe.

The String of Pearls wasn’t the only amazing visual that evening. Water, or perhaps saltwater, is inherently phosphorescent and small air bubbles produced by regulators, fin kicks or a hand being swept side to side produces small, glowing orbs which you can watch float to the surface. Light from our flashlights attracted small one-inch worms ranging in color from tan to blue which would swirl around in our light beams. Benign as they were, those little creatures were spooky in their voracious swimming and we had fun moving our lights onto each others’ arms to bring the swarming masses ever closer to our dive buddies.

That evening, when the diving was done we sat down to enjoy some of the dinner we helped prepare and shared our stories with some of the Tradewinds guests. We relaxed and enjoyed a peaceful night on a tropical paradise. I slept outside in a hammock that night and had a wonderfully restful night.

Let's go diving!

Let's go diving!

It’s a good thing I got a good meal and an even better rest because the next day would prove to be one of the most memorable days of my life. We planned to make one dive that morning and then head back to town around midday. After a breakfast of eggs, bacon and homemade tortillas we got our gear ready and headed back to the reef.

Lime Caye Wall (link, scroll down to “Sapodilla Cayes”) was a fantastic dive site. About 20 feet below the surface was the reef, full of corals, trigger fish, parrot fish and small to medium snappers. As you swam to the east the reef wall dropped around 100 feet as the continental shelf started to drop into the open ocean. Two of the divers immediately took off down that wall with their cameras. Of their various photos, one of my favorites was a video of a green moray eel who was sharing a small cave with a spiny lobster. (Seen below.) The rest of us stayed closer to the top of the wall, but as far as we ever were from the other two, we could always see their bubble streams. Visibility must have been over 100 feet.

Actually I didn’t really stay on top of the reef wall the whole time. I was anxious to see the side of the wall so I swam down along side of it. That’s where some of the larger fish were hanging out. I swam over a coral head through the middle of a school of dog snapper and explored under some of the ridges in the wall. Meanwhile off to my left was the open ocean – any matter of creature could have been out in that blue abyss, including the largest fish in the world.

My depth gauge was apparently malfunctioning. My whole time along the wall it never recorded a depth lower than 25 feet, though our dive master said we were closer to 60’. Around the midway point of the dive my equipment had another malfunction. My secondary second stage – affectionately referred to as “the octopus” and used as an emergency air supply if a buddy runs out of air or if the primary mouthpiece malfunctions – began to “free flow,” uncontrollably spewing air upward. The dive master and I both looked at it underwater, and after exhausting the PADI-approved techniques as well as the “hit it until it behaves” broken TV technique, we agreed the only solution was to hold it mouthpiece-down through the rest of the dive, as if I was navigating with an underwater compass. That stopped most of the leak, though it continued to expunge air whenever I exhaled. As a result, the deeper portion of my dive was over, as I stayed closer to the surface so as not to run through my remaining air at too fast a clip.

Due to the lost air from the octopus free-flow, I had to end my dive earlier than the rest of the group. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed with the dive’s result. It was a beautiful location and it was my last dive in the foreseeable future. To have it shortened by malfunctioning gear was a bit hard to take. So fun is diving that anything that takes it away from you equates to a major buzzkill.

After the rest of the group surfaced we headed back to the island. En route the captain saw a congregation of birds over the open sea. As we approached we also saw the “boil” that indicates tuna feeding. According to the more experienced naturalists on board these were telltale signs of whale sharks feeding and we maneuvered the boat closer to look for the fins that would confirm their presence.

Whale Shark

Whale Shark

I was told to put on my mask and fins in anticipation of finding the gentle giants. Once they were confirmed we immediately dropped into the water. I entered on the port side of the boat looking past the bow and immediately saw a whale shark vertical in the water. To the right was another animal in a horizontal position. When I came up for air I yelled, “There’s two of them!” Someone else yelled, “There’s a third!” When I went back under I looked to the starboard side of the boat to see the additional shark. I was amazed. The water was littered with chum – the bits of baitfish that had been shred by the sharks and tuna. Both bonita and the larger yellow fin were present. I spent a minute or so sitting under water, surfacing for air and watching the mêlée in front of me. I looked down. Below me was only unfettered blue, streaked by the occasional tuna tens of meters below. Light streaked upward from some unknown horizon point in the depths. As I would later think about the experience, I was surprised by my lack of fear for swimming in the open ocean next to a feeding frenzy. Adrenaline was coursing through my veins.

At one point one of the sharks started swimming toward the stern of the boat on the opposite side of the boat from me. I shadowed it from the port side and eventually found myself behind the boat with the beast a mere ten feet from me. For one reason or another it made a hard, right hand turn and aimed itself directly at my position. I froze. What should I do, I wondered. I decided I wasn’t going to move, I was going to let the animal dictate the situation. So I went up for one more breath and re-submerged my face in the water in the classic “dead man’s” float. The whale shark – a juvenile at around 20 feet in length – swam toward me. I could see its small beady eyes fix their gaze on me. And then I remained motionless as it coolly swam directly underneath me. I was paralyzed in excitement. As its head passed underneath I reached out my right hand and grazed the top inch of its dorsal fin as it passed. I touched the whale shark!!

Say "Cheese!"

Say "Cheese!"

I gave a light kick so as to get out of the way of the animal’s massive tail fin which I hoped wouldn’t hit me. The animal must have been diving because we missed each other as I remained on the surface. I popped up and screamed my excitement to the group. Two of them had been nearly as close themselves. Neither had touched an animal, which is the appropriate protocol around these passive creatures. In fact, it’s illegal to touch them and molestation of the animals can come with a BZ$10,000 fine. But as I explained, the animal swam toward me and I simple extended a hand to see how close it truly was to me. (Diving masks magnify underwater visuals and it can often be difficult to accurately gauge size and distance below the surface.)

The Beast Approaches!

The Beast Approaches!

I swam over toward the rest of the group on the starboard side of the boat. As I looked back at my whale shark I saw a silhouette of a more traditional shark in the distance. Swimming at a depth of perhaps 15-20 meters, it had a rounded body around 10-12 feet long, an extended top pectoral fin and it was swimming away from me. In later conversations, others would speculate it was a lemon shark, though it could have also been one of the more common reef sharks found in the area. The other two whale sharks were still off the starboard side of the boat and I joined my companions to watch them. Immediately off to our right we saw a large manta ray gently gyrating its wings through the water about a meter below the surface. What a menagerie!

As the feeding frenzy moved away from us we boarded the boat and recounted what we had seen. We then waited about 20 minutes and set out for another swim with the pelagic predators. The second time we entered the water we only swam with one whale shark, but it was a true behemoth and was clearly a full-grown adult. It was hard to say whether that was the fourth animal we had seen or part of the original three, as it had been hard to track each animal as the bait ball dissipated and moved away from us. I used my fins and a freestyle swim stroke to come up to the animal at an approximate 7 o’clock position a few meters off its tail. It was swimming fast and quickly eluded us. But it was of little matter … the experience was set. We swam with whale sharks!

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Saga of the Red Truck

Posted by Peder on 3 June 2009

redtruck

Back in January an acquaintance of mine, let’s call her “Kacy,” had a red truck and a boyfriend, and all was right with the world.  The truck was beat up and scruffy looking, but it never broke down and the four-wheel drive got Kacy out of any muddy trouble she could get herself into.

The boyfriend was equally endearing, though significantly easier on the eyes.  He dressed well and always had a snappy compliment for whomever he was speaking with.  Trained as an electrician, he scored major “boyfriend points” by fixing Kacy’s mom’s refrigerator and anything else that would go on the fritz.  And in muggy Belize, there’s no shortage of electrical equipment acting up.

Who's scruffy looking?

Who's scruffy looking?

As was the custom, Kacy and Mr. Right lived together.  Though it’s common for unmarried couples to live together in many parts of the world, the phenomenon reaches new heights here.  Truth is many couples choose to never get married even after years of cohabitation and multiple children together.  It’s hard to say why this happens, but the fondness both genders have for affairs outside of their main relationships certainly must add to the trend.  There’s no shortage of this.  Both women and men will openly talk about new flings they have with people who are not their “baby mama” or “husband.”  More to the point of how loose these relationships are, the words “husband” and “wife” are used loosely and frequently attributed to common law arrangements, or even boyfriends and girlfriends who have been dating for, say, more than six months.  Clearly the laid back indifference of the Caribbean extends to Belizean relationship labels.  But I digress.

Kacy and Mr. Right were living together at her home.  Many of his clothes hung in her closet, his tools were there and his car sat outside next to her truck.  All was right with the world.  But this all changed one April day when Mr. Right borrowed Kacy’s beat up red truck to run an errand that required the 4×4 capability his sedan couldn’t provide.  And he never returned.

No note, no phone call, no nothing.  Mr. Right was Mr. Gone.  He vanished, and he took that reliable pickup truck with him.  Kacy’s reaction was equally amazing/perplexing as she didn’t complain or do anything (substantial) about the disappearance for two months.  Sure, she tried calling him, but he never answered her calls and she never persisted any further.  She simply lived her life and drove his car around town in his absence.  He couldn’t be gone for long if he left his car and belongings at her house, could he?

Fish needing a monger

Fish needing a monger

Well after two months it started looking like he could.  Kacy started to worry so she put in a call to his mother.  She said he had two days to check in with her or she would call the police.  In the meantime she checked with the company he claimed to work for and learned he had been employed there … three years earlier.  A little more investigation found that he had not just the two kids he admitted to, but six.  With three mothers.  Things started stinking worse than the Saturday fish market.

After the two day window, a call to the police provided a lot of clarification.belize-map Turns out Mr. Gone had been previously incarcerated for auto theft in Belize City, and he had a current warrant out for his arrest in Corozal.  (Charges were unspecified.)  He was due in Corozal court this past Monday, so if Kacy put in a formal complaint against him the police would extradite him back to Punta Gorda after his hearing.  And they’d bring the truck too!  Things were starting to look up.  Kacy would get her truck back and get this loser out of her life forever.  She’s been all smiles all week!

Then this morning she found out the police officer driving her truck to her – with Mr. Wrong along for the ride – flipped the vehicle in transit.  Mr. Wrong and the driver are in stable condition, and another cop who was riding in the bed is in critical condition.

The truck was totaled.

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Neighbor Boy

Posted by Peder on 26 May 2009

This is Khalid (aka Junior) and he’s three years old.  He lives next door to me down here in Punta Gorda.This photo was at the local laundry where I had some things washed.  It was a hot mid-morning on a Saturday and a bunch of the local kids were playing around the store where their mothers worked.  But little Khalid was all tuckered out.

khalid 2

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I’m a certified SCUBA diver

Posted by Peder on 22 May 2009

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here but I have two new things to share that I’ve been excited about and that lead to a new post.  First off, WordPress allows you to post by email now, making posting that much easier.  Secondly, I am now a SCUBA diver.

I can’t believe how much fun it was to be out in the water the last couple days.  On each day I went for a morning and afternoon dive, exploring the waters around West Snake Caye, here in southern Belize.  The water temp was around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, visibility was around 20 feet (lots of rivers dump into the area), and there are small reefs surrounding each of the small islands.

After three classroom sessions on the theory of diving, I was well ready to put my knowledge into action.  Our first boat ride was to Abalone Caye, the site of TIDE’s ranger station for the Point Honduras Marine Reserve .  From this location patrols are sent out to find illegal fishing activities and research teams are dispatched.  On the two days I was there, we shared the station with research crews logging lobster populations, noting distribution, gender and size.  Sounds like interesting work – a full day underwater seeking out the crustaceans – and hopefully I’ll have a chance to do that sometime in the future.

During each session we would start with our skills exercises.  These "confined water" dives are usually done in swimming pools, but because of the clarity of the water and the relative lack of currents from reefs, etc., we demonstrated these skills in about 15 ft of salt water.  Afterward we’d go for a little swim in deeper water.  Those would usually last around 30 mins, depending on time and air supply.  Aside from general reef life we saw a school of tarpon and a hunting squid.  Both were amazing.  The tarpons appeared huge and surprised us by swimming right next to us, and the squid stayed right were it was, allowing us to view it as close as five feet.  Amazing.

My instructor was a Czech named Karel Kuran.  He’s a very experienced diver and instructor, having earned his stripes diving and instructing in Key West (Florida), Roatan (Honduras) and Exeter (England).  He’s also a friend and I was happy to be able to learn from a disciplined instructor who I could have a beer with after the dive!

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My Morning Coffee

Posted by Peder on 25 March 2009

I am a coffee drinker, but here in Belize getting a proper cup of coffee can be difficult. Of course, that depends on your definition of “proper.” I’m talking about the Starbucks/Caribou quality joe one gets used to living in the States. And if corporate coffee isn’t your thing — you prefer to make it at home or visit smaller coffee houses — then we’re still in the same boat.

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Tea

For a Central American country, I’m pretty surprised how hard it is to find good coffee here.  First of all, there’s not much of a culture for it.  It’s not too common to walk into a Mayan or Garifuna household and see a coffee maker or be offered a cup.  What you might be offered is a cup of tea.  Maybe it’s the British colonial roots or maybe it’s that tea is less expensive than coffee, but this is a tea drinking nation — that is, when hot beverages are called for.  As I write this it’s pushing 80 degrees at 9:30 in the morning.  I myself would be more inclined for a fresh glass of lime juice than a steamy beverage at this point!

Instant Coffee

Instant Coffee

A coworker asked me yesterday to teach her how to make coffee.  You see, after a sufficient influx of English and American expats even a Belizean administration as to make some concessions.  Ours was a drip coffee maker, which arrived around 3 weeks after I did.  Anyway, our admin assistant wants to know how to use this thing.  As she put it, “I’m only used to making coffee the traditional way.”  Which way is that, I asked her.  “Instant.” A groan of exasperation left my lips even as I tried to suppress it.  So together we made her first pot of drip coffee.  Maxwell House.  Still not up to Starbucks, but it’s not a horrible place to be.

Important Office Supplies

Important Office Supplies

There are a couple places in town to get coffee, but if you don’t want instant you have to go to an establishment owned by an expat or one that caters to the tourist crowd.  One option here in PG is Tide Tours, operated by a Czech friend (who should also be teaching me SCUBA in a couple weeks).  He always has a pot burning, but similar to what we have at our office, it’s a mid-grade roast with powdered milk.  One thing I will say though is the cane sugar we have down here is delicious.  No one could have a problem with the sugar, say I.

Sweetened Condensed Milk

Sweetened Condensed Milk

So, yeah. Powdered milk isn’t always that appealing, but it’s often what’s available. Liquid milk isn’t especially prevalent, though if the first store you stop at is out, the second one likely will have it. They’ll have the European-style box-o-milk which sits on the shelf at room temperature and only needs to be refrigerated once it’s been opened. What I’ve come to like is condensed milk. I never really had that much ever before, but it’s a great substitute for Half & Half, my coffee condiment of choice back home. As a bonus the condensed milk is sweetened pretty much sealing its fate as ideal demitasse diluter.  (Oh, and check out that no-moving-parts can opener I got in that picture.  It’s works surprisingly well!)

High Quality Belizean Brew

High Quality Belizean Brew

There is some proper coffee grown here.  Good stuff:  Shade grown, organic, high quality.  You see it sold at the grocery stores, but the price point is just so much higher than the other stuff; it’s hard to justify buying something like that.  Oh well, looks like I’ll be spending more time with the teas and lime juices until I return to the colder climes of the Northland.

* Bloop! *

* Bloop! *

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